Northern Irish students currently make up around three per cent of students in Trinity. In a press release two years ago, Provost Patrick Prendergast stated that he wanted Trinity to become “a university for the whole island of Ireland” and to continually increase the number of Northern Irish students coming to the College. While efforts to increase this percentage undoubtedly depend on work done by Trinity, the responsibility also lies with prospective students. Those that have made it here faced an uphill battle all the way, having taken on an extra subject than their peers while receiving very little information or support from their schools or, indeed, from Trinity. Despite this, those that make it here seem to thoroughly enjoy their college experience. With the launch of Trinity’s Northern Irish Engagement Programme in 2013 and A-Level Admission Feasibility Study in 2014, alongside the change in points conversion for A-level grades for entry into all universities in Ireland in 2015, things are looking up for Northern Irish students hoping to come to Trinity. Will these initiatives be enough to entice these students to cross the border? Trinity certainly hopes so, having set an ambitious target to raise the proportion of Northern Irish students on campus to eight per cent. The benefits of these initiatives can already be seen in the recently announced 22 per cent rise in CAO applications from Northern Ireland to Trinity for the next academic year.
Up until 2015, in order to achieve the points required for many courses in Trinity, it was necessary to do four A-levels. Only one in eight Northern Irish students sit four A-levels, as universities in the North and in the UK only require three. Catherine Corrigan, a fourth-year business and economics student, told The University Times about the difficulties associated with doing four: “It was a huge barrier, even from our school being very wary and non-supportive and when we did decide to do four A-levels, our careers teacher basically told us that we wouldn’t get into Trinity but best of luck.” However, not all students found it particularly inconvenient. Jack Phippen, a third-year English student stated that it “wasn’t too taxing” while second-year history and economics student Patrick McDonagh said he was going to do four regardless of their UCAS application. It is interesting to note that most of the students The University Times spoke to had applied to Oxford or Cambridge, so perhaps this explains why they would have taken a fourth A-level subject for the purpose of their UCAS despite the fact that UK universities demand only three subjects.
Last year, Ireland’s seven universities changed the conversion of A-level grades to CAO points in order to make it more feasible for Northern Irish students to study here. Before this, students could achieve a maximum of 450 points with three A-levels, whereas now three subjects yield up to 540 points. Students doing a fourth A-level receive 60 points for an A* grade. This initiative followed the A-level Admissions Feasibility Study introduced in Trinity in 2014. As part of this feasibility study, one to three places, depending on the size of the course, are set aside each year in most courses for the Northern Irish students who achieve the best results in 3 A-levels grades. The study was a pioneering move in many ways, easing the way for Northern Irish students to study in the Republic.
Jackson recalls speaking about his experience at the Queen’s open day as students played hurling on the front green, something he associates very much with republicanism and which “puts chills down unionists”
In more ways than one, these students went against the grain when they decided to apply to Trinity. Some of them were one of only two or three students in their year in school who did the CAO. Most of their classmates chose to remain close to home, studying in Queen’s University Belfast or the University of Ulster. Samuel Jackson, a second-year history student from Saintfield, Co Down, who describes himself as a “quintessential unionist of the most conservative sort”, initially had no intentions of coming to study in the South. In hindsight, he is glad he came to Trinity because “people don’t really care if you’re a unionist or a nationalist but you can have great discussions, you can have great debate and the heat is taken out of it”. He maintains that he could not have expressed his opinions in class if he had gone to Queen’s because “there’s such ill-feeling towards unionists” there and they are in “a strong minority”. Jackson recalls speaking about his experience at the Queen’s open day as students played hurling on the front green, something he associates very much with republicanism and which “puts chills down unionists”. To the surprise of many of his unionist friends, he has thrived in an environment where tensions aren’t as high.
Other students were put off going to Queen’s because they wanted to get away from the North itself. Speaking to The University Times, McDonagh said: “I don’t like Belfast. I think it’s a really grim place to live for three years with all the bomb alerts. I just wanted to get away from that.”
While the seven students varied in their opinions on many issues, one thing they all agreed on wholeheartedly was that Trinity did, what Corrigan calls, an “abysmal” job at promoting itself to these students. While universities from the UK crossed the water to appear at university fairs and school visits, Trinity was notably absent from the majority of these events and had very little contact with schools in the North. This left Corrigan with a strong sense of determination to improve Trinity’s outreach to Northern Ireland.
She recalled an email she received from Trinity in her first year of college, which called on all Northern Irish students to attend a meeting with no indication of what it was about: “We had no idea what it was for. When we went, there were other Northern Irish students too, obviously, who were older than us and they asked us all why Northern Irish students weren’t coming to Trinity and we were like, you’ve made it so difficult that we could actually go to Oxford or Cambridge so much easier and yet you expect to work to come here because the conversion isn’t working in our favour at all.”
Trinity’s Northern Irish Engagement Programme was introduced in 2013 to address this concerning lack of interest in Northern Irish students in coming to Trinity. It focuses on promoting Trinity at university and career fairs, as well as at visiting schools, and aims to produce information pamphlets to inform Northern Irish students about Trinity and the benefits of studying here. The Northern Irish student ambassadors are a central part of the programme, according to Dr Seán O’Reilly, Trinity’s Student Recruitment Officer. Corrigan has been heavily involved in the programme since her first year and praised the progress of the programme: “I think the progress has been great, from what didn’t exist when I came to what does exist now it’s been a fantastic achievement and I’m really glad Trinity has decided to be at the forefront of that.”
I think there was a perception that there was an active effort to exclude Northern Irish students and that was never the case
Speaking to The University Times, O’Reilly explained the drop in Northern Irish students coming to Trinity in the past: “A big part of it had to do with the way the A-levels were weighted in the CAO in comparison to Leaving Certificate points. Another part of it was us resting on our own laurels.” Speaking about the perception of Trinity in the North he said it was “much better now” and that they “have put Trinity in people’s minds again”. He continued: “I think there was a perception that there was an active effort to exclude Northern Irish students and that was never the case but the way things got rebalanced with points, Trinity seemed to suffer the most because our points were so high and it often made us look like an outlier.”
In terms of cultural differences, the main adjustment students faced coming here was the realisation that your religion and background don’t matter as much. Corrigan states: “I didn’t feel foreign in any way but there’s a massive difference down here in the way religion is such a focus in Northern Ireland and that’s always a massive thing, who’s a Catholic and who’s a Protestant and people might be thinking about what school you went to and what your name is. It’s become a subconscious thing in NI between everyone now.” One cultural difference third-year philosophy, political science, economics and sociology (PPES) student Olly Donnelly noticed was the difference in senses of humour, something he put down to historical legacy in the North: “The sense of humour in the North is famously dark and brutal. Coming down here, I think the dark humour is difficult for people to get.”
The engagement programme is a welcome step towards enticing students to study here, but does it go far enough to cater for Northern Irish students when they arrive? Donnelly spoke about the teething problems that these students face when moving over the border: “I think Trinity has minded me really well as a student but I don’t think they have tailored enough things specifically to Northern students beyond the very simple, academic process of getting in.” He added that “the things people underestimate are the practical things like the bank accounts, getting your PPS number, getting your loans at the right time so you can pay for your accommodation.” College attempts to guide international students through these practical inconveniences, but Northern Irish students can be neglected in this respect.
While most students praised the new entrance requirements, others were more critical about the conversion of grades. Corrigan says: “I think it has really disadvantaged someone who does take on a fourth A-level and I think if someone takes on a fourth A-level should be rewarded equally for that A-level and not disproportionately to the other three”. Jackson’s concern was for the value of Trinity’s education as a “premier university”: “I think that there should be parity in terms of how easy it is to get in from the South and the North but I don’t want Trinity to devalue the institution by making it too easy for northerners to get in.”
I think Trinity has minded me really well as a student but I don’t think they have tailored enough things specifically to Northern students beyond the very simple, academic process of getting in
The engagement programme comes at a time of uncertainty for the future of higher education funding here in the Republic of Ireland. The student contribution charge has been rising year on year and currently stands at €3,000 per year. This is significantly lower than the £9,000 per year in the UK and is low enough to draw students away from Northern Ireland, where they would pay £3,805 per year. Having said this, the cost of living in Dublin makes it impossible for some students to come to study in Dublin. Corrigan applied to Trinity in the year of the fee hike in the UK, while Phippen said that the fees “definitely influenced [his] decision”. He goes on to say that if fees similar to those in UK universities came in, “Trinity definitely wouldn’t be as attractive”.
There was a marked sense of political apathy among students when speaking about the North. The current state of play in Northern Irish politics is a definite turn-off when discussing moving back there after college. In an email conversation with The University Times, third-year law student Briege MacOscar from Dungannon expressed her frustration: “At the moment it is quite frustrating to watch politics play out and the crucial issues not being tackled and I think that while this continues the North will struggle to attract those who have left to come back.”
Although annoyed with the current system, MacOscar and Jackson are two very politically engaged young people. MacOscar, who identifies herself as an Irish nationalist, joined Ógra Fianna Fáil on arrival to Trinity. Last year, she was elected to the National Executive to the Committee of Fifteen and represents the interests of the Northern members of the party. In an email statement to The University Times, MacOscar gave her explanation for political disengagement: “There is a feeling in the North that there is no real prospect for change either, the current parties aren’t offering anything attractive in the way of vision and I believe that politically, the North would benefit from newer parties standing for election and challenging the status quo, whether that is Fianna Fáil or the British Labour Party.”
I think it’s a positive compared to going to university in the North because you get to move away, you get to meet new people, you get to experience a slightly different culture and you are out of your comfort zone
Jackson is an active member of the Unionist Party and the Orange Order, and attends Orange Order meetings in Dublin. He put the political disengagement among young people down to the “mandatory coalition” system in Northern Ireland. He is optimistic about the future of Northern Ireland and could see himself living there again some day: “I believe something great can happen in Northern Ireland. I think there’s a lot of potential there and a lot of great minds. A lot of great things can be done but the thing that is impinging on this is our political system. Unless that changes, that makes it more difficult for people to come back.”
Now that they have left Northern Ireland, will any of them return? Phippen was quick to admit that he would never live in Northern Ireland again because it’s “very conservative, steeped in religion and politics in a way that the rest of Ireland isn’t anymore”. Corrigan echoed this sentiment and added that the economy of the North was too small and she would be concerned about getting a job: “There are not enough jobs in Northern Ireland to sustain the amount of educated people there.”
Speaking to The University Times about the benefit for Northern students coming here, third-year politics and philosophy student Samuel Johnston said: “I think it’s a positive compared to going to university in the North because you get to move away, you get to meet new people, you get to experience a slightly different culture and you are out of your comfort zone, which is a good thing for being a student.” The results of the engagement programme, the A-level Admission Feasibility Study and the new conversion of grades will be revealed over the next few years, but a more holistic approach could provide comfort for these students when crossing the border to know that they will be taken care of. O’Reilly spoke to The University Times on his hopes for the future of the programme: “The ambition for Trinity as a whole is that we bring in 300 Northern Irish students a year. It’s an ambitious target but the ambition for this programme and the hopes for it are the same as the hopes I have for recruiting students from around the country.” His ultimate goal is “to make Trinity the aspiration for every secondary student in Ireland”.